Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
Sudden Death is an action thriller film released in 1995 and was directed by Peter Hyams. Based on a story by the wife of the then-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team, the film depicts a terrorist attack on their stadium during a packed match and the efforts of a lone fire marshal to rescue his kidnapped daughter and the US Vice President. The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme, Powers Boothe, Dorian Harewood and Raymond J. Barry. The film was co-produced by Howard Baldwin, the aforementioned team owner and filming largely took place in the Pittsburgh Civic Arena (later known as the Mellon Arena) where the majority of the film is set. Critics were divided at the time of release although many now agree that this is one of Van Damme's better efforts. The film would go on to earn around $64 million worldwide and recently had a remake released in 2020, Welcome to Sudden Death, with Michael Jai White starring.
What's it about?
Former firefighter Darren McCord now works as chief fire marshal at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena after being traumatised during a failed rescue a few years ago. As Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals rolls into town between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, Darren decides to take his kids Tyler and Emily to see the game as part of Tyler's birthday present. However, the two kids have a squabble while Darren is away and Emily storms off. When he comes back, Darren orders Tyler to stay in his seat while he looks for Emily.
However, unbeknown to almost everyone is the fact that terrorists have occupied the VIP suite at the stadium and are holding the visiting Vice President and other dignitaries hostage. Led by former CIA operative Joshua Foss, they have planted bombs around the arena and plan to detonate them when the game finishes unless their enormous ransom demands are met. With Emily now captured by the terrorists and held in the same room, Darren decides to take the fight to them in spite of the instructions of Secret Service agent Matthew Hallmark who is coordinating a response to Foss' threat.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Raymond J Barry
Vice President Daniel Binder
Release Date (UK)
19th April, 1996
15 (2019 re-rating)
What's to like?
This film might strike a note or two of familiarity if you've already seen Die Hard or any of its countless imitators - Under Siege, Passenger 57, Air Force One, you know the usual suspects. So what we're basically dealing with here is 'Die Hard on ice' and while that may sound formulaic, it doesn't stop it from being fun. Boothe is a deliciously psychotic villain cloaked in urbane elegance, much like Alan Rickman was as Hans Gruber. Van Damme might lack the square-jawed likeability of Bruce Willis but he makes up for it in the action scenes, punching and kicking his way through baddies with reckless abandon in what might be one of his best films to date. And much like Die Hard, this frenetic pace is tempered with some occasional humour such as the frankly insane fight between Van Damme and the seven-foot-tall cuddly mascot of the Pittsburgh Penguins team, Iceburgh (apparently that's his name!).
While Sudden Death lacks in originality, it still maintains its intensity through its action scenes which are loud, brash and even inventive in places. The film works hard to get the most out of its setting and the film's tension ratchets up as the match itself continues towards its finale. Who cares that it doesn't do much to change the formula of these type of action films? If it isn't broke, you know... I can't criticise the film for trying to meddle with things too much because there isn't much wrong with Die Hard so few films are going to be able to improve on it. But you shouldn't dismiss this film because it sticks so closely to its roots because even jaded action film fans will find something to like here.
- This film, widely acknowledged as a Die Hard clone, was released the same year as Die Hard With A Vengeance. Sadly, Sudden Death took less in its entire run than the third Die Hard film took in its first weekend.
- The film contains several cameos by Pittsburgh Penguins players and stars at the time including Luc Robitaille, Ian Moran, Ken Wregget and commentators Mike Lange and Paul Steigerwald. Lange even included several of his catchphrases in the film, most notably "scratch my back with a hacksaw".
- Shots of the crowd were filmed in just one night using around 3000 extras. Unfortunately, the filmmakers ran out of money to pay for any more so they just used cardboard cut-outs to make it look like 17'000 fans in attendance.
What's not to like?
Regardless of how explosive and violent the film is, it's this lack of ambition that ultimately holds it back. Sudden Death is a competent action thriller but nothing about it stands out as exceptional. For all the bombast and bluster, there is no escaping the fact that you can reasonably predict what will happen and guess the plot twists because the film refuses to deviate from what we've all seen before. At no point do you ever feel like McClane... I mean, McCord is ever in any real danger despite the countless goons sent to eliminate him. The ending is never in doubt so it's difficult to suspend your belief long enough for the film to generate any tension, something Die Hard was able to do.
There is the feeling that the entire film is essentially a very long promotional video for the Pittsburgh Penguins as the film contains endless references, logos, mentions and cameos relating to the team. It's product placement almost on a James Bond scale and is more than a little distracting. I also felt a little sorry for Van Damme whose lack of charisma fail to make his character anything other than a walking cliché, certainly compared to Willis' wise-cracking cop. It's not his fault he is saddled with a European accent which fatally undermines his ability to be an all-American hero, despite his physical gifts. But so was Arnold Schwarzenegger and it didn't stop him rising to A-list status.
Should I watch it?
Sudden Death is as big and dumb as action thrillers come but for fans in a certain mindset, it'll do the trick. Van Damme might not be the greatest leading man but his physicality and the film's traditional formula make the film feel welcoming, familiar and ultimately watchable. Just don't expect anything too world-shattering, ok?
Great For: action film fans, anybody related to the PIttsburgh Penguins, anyone who hasn't seen Die Hard - yep, all six of you.
Not So Great For: originality, new ideas, breaking the mould for action films to come
What else should I watch?
OK so you've got the formula for the perfect action thriller in Die Hard. Only you can't set the story within an isolated skyscraper so what do you do? How about setting your action thriller on a naval battleship (Under Siege) or an aeroplane (Passenger 57) or a mountain (Cliffhanger) or even Alcatraz (The Rock)? Heck, Steven Seagal ripped Die Hard off twice in the same franchise when Under Siege 2: Dark Territory was basically Die Hard on a train! One suspects that the formula might need some tweaking soon after the near-simultaneous release of two films that placed the story within the White House - White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen.
Poor old Van Damme has struggled to maintain his man-of-action style reputation as the years have rolled on, descending into direct-to-DVD fluff like The Shepherd and forlorn sequels to much older movies like the 2016 Kickboxer: Vengeance. He's even lapsed into self-parody, playing humorous versions of himself on TV in Jean-Claude Van Johnson and is due to make a cameo appearance in the forthcoming Minions: The Rise Of Gru, due for release in 2021.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox